The presidents of Estonia and Lithuania have refused invitations to attend the May 9 ceremonies in Moscow celebrating the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. This move marks the climax of the ongoing “battle over history” between Moscow and the Baltic countries in the run up to the Victory Day festivities. But this acrimonious debate is not just about history. The hard-fought polemic over the “true interpretation” of the past directly relates to Russia’s current foreign policy interests as well as to some disturbing aspects of its present-day political identity.
On March 7, President Arnold Ruutel of Estonia and his Lithuanian counterpart, Valdas Adamkus, announced they would stay home due to lingering bitterness in their countries over the Soviet postwar occupation of the Baltic states. “Understanding well how sensitive history is to the Lithuanian nation, I have decided to stay in Lithuania on May 9 to celebrate it properly,” Adamkus stated. Ruutel said he also would not attend, adding, “The sufferings of the people of Estonia caused by World War II and those of the following years have not yet died away from the memory of the people” (AP, March 8).
Moscow was quick to criticize what it called the Baltic states’ unfortunate demarche. Sergei Mironov, head of the Federation Council, called the joint Estonian-Lithuanian decision a “big historical mistake.” According to one Russian government official, the decision not to attend Moscow celebrations will only “put Estonia and Lithuania in European and global isolation” (Vremya novostei, March 10).
Only Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga is going to come for the festivities. Ironically, she has been a much harsher critic of the Kremlin position than Ruutel and Adamkus. Latvia’s understanding of the complex political implications of the Soviet victory over Hitler for the Baltic region is very similar to that of Estonia and Lithuania. Latvian Foreign Minister Artis Pabriks made the contradictory symbolism of VE-Day very plain: “May 9 [marks] not only the victory over Nazism but [is] also an endorsement of the Soviet Union’s occupation of the Baltic countries” (Izvestiya, February 16).
For its part, the Kremlin dismisses the notion that it occupied the Baltic countries in 1940 following the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Moscow has been pushing hard for the adoption of inter-state declarations to be signed during the Baltic leaders’ visit to Moscow in May. The draft documents do not mention “occupation,” but instead refer to the problem of national (i.e., Russian-speaking) minorities in the Baltic countries. The Kremlin has made a direct linkage between adopting the declarations and signing the border treaties with Estonia and Latvia. (Moscow has already signed a border treaty with Lithuania.)
Russia is unlikely to sign the treaties with Estonia and Latvia in the near future, and this situation will strain relations between Moscow and Brussels, since the European Union insists on the speedy conclusion of the treaties between Russia and the two Baltic countries. As the attached political declarations are purely a Russian initiative, European policymakers will likely blame Moscow for stalling the process of final accommodation with the Balts (Politcom.ru, March 9).
Moscow’s stiff position has two explanations. First, by pushing documents totally unacceptable to the Baltic governments, the Kremlin seeks to portray them as a bunch of intransigent crypto-fascists and thus discredit them in the eyes of their European Union partners. Symptomatically, in comments devoted to the release of the book History of Latvia: The 20th Century, the Russian Foreign Ministry accused the Latvians of harboring “sentiments of the historic revanche” that are being supported “at the highest state level” (mid.ru, February 2). Kremlin spin doctors believe Estonia and Lithuania’s decision to stay home provides a powerful propaganda trump card. Some Russian commentators have already pointed out that the Baltic leaders’ “demonstrative no-show” at the commemoration festivities will be a larger scandal than their “banal Russophobia” (Rossiiskaya gazeta, January 27).
Moscow seeks to discredit the Baltic leaders as a way to express its utter unhappiness about the role these new EU entrants play within the powerful bloc. The overwhelming majority of Russian political pundits view the Baltic countries as the “anti-Russian force within the EU” that poisons relations between Moscow and Brussels. Moscow is wary of the perceived ambitions of the Baltic states to act as Europe’s chief experts on Russia and the post-Soviet space. Especially worrisome, in the eyes of the Kremlin strategists, is the Baltic political elites’ active participation in the overall EU policy aimed at tearing certain CIS countries away from the Russia-led integration bloc and reorienting them toward the EU and NATO. According to one analyst at Russia’s Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, there is even a peculiar “division of labor” between the new EU members, whereby Poland and Lithuania are “responsible” for Ukraine and Estonia and Latvia for Georgia (Russky kuryer, December 30, 2004).
The second reason behind Russia’s behavior directly pertains to its current political identity, which is dubious at best and potentially dangerous at its worst. Almost 15 years after the collapse of communism, Russian society still has not unambiguously distanced itself from Stalinism; nor has the Russian elite fully repudiated the pernicious Stalinist legacy in its geostrategic thinking. On the contrary, voices are increasingly being heard in Moscow claiming that the Stalin era constitutes one of the most glorious pages of Russia’s modern history. More alarmingly, one recent poll showed that 42% of respondents would like to see a “new Stalin” in the Kremlin (Novye izvestiya, March 5).
But there is a serious danger in the unwillingness to see one’s history critically. The disastrous social practices that were not properly analyzed and condemned may well reproduce themselves. Such an alarming prospect cannot fail to disturb both the Baltic nations — the undisputable victims of Stalinist foreign policy — and their partners in the European Union.